In an unexpected turn of events, French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s up-lifting docudrama “Entre les Murs (The Class) nabbed the 61st Cannes Film Festival’s Golden Palm award last Sunday, ending a rather decisive round inundated with bleak pictures about poverty, dysfunctional families, war, political corruption and violence.
Known for his slice-of-life films “Human Resources and “Time Out examining labor in modern Europe, Cantet’s new film – the first French production to win the festival’s highest honor in 21 years – charts a year in the life of a schoolteacher and his rough, multi-cultural class located in a poor Parisian district.
Based on the best-seller autobiography of François Bégaudeau, who plays the lead, Cantet’s film is mostly cast by non-professional actors. The buoyant poignancy of Cantet was a breath of fresh air in an edition marred by a weak market, and a film selection that pales in comparison to last year’s.
The fineness of last year’s offerings is one of the primary reasons this year’s festival has been dubbed a “disappointment. With nearly 130 films screening in the festival’s different sections, numerous excellent films from new and established filmmakers presented a satisfactory oeuvre for film lovers making their annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of film. Yet, apart from a handful of truly exceptional works, the festival lacked masterpieces akin to last year’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, “No Country for Old Men, “Secret Sunshine, or “Silent Light.
Last year’s edition was widely considered the best Cannes round in 10 years. Even if this year’s edition did deliver a stronger, more consistent selection, it would’ve still ultimately been deemed a letdown.
The presence of some of the world’s great filmmakers – Eastwood, Egoyan, the Dardenne brothers, Wenders, Nuri Bilge Ceylan – with solid films that, nevertheless, weren’t on par with their previous work, was another chief reason for the aura of discontent that loomed over the 10-day festival.
Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling, his follow-up to 2006’s “Letters from Iwo Jimma, tells the story of single mother Christine Collins’ (Angelina Jolie) battle against the corrupt Los Angeles police force in 1928 following her son’s abduction.
“Changeling received a warm reception, especially for a career-best performance from Jolie, who lost the best actress prize to Sandra Corveloni’s portrayal of a working-class mother in Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s “Linha de Passe. The majority of the characters, as several critics pointed out, are pigeon-holed into the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ camps; a serious defect that could possibly undermine the film’s potential in the Oscars.
Two-time Belgian Palm d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne underwhelmed critics with their latest minimalist drama “Le silence de Lorna (The Silence of Lorna). The film, which won the best script award, centers on the moral struggle of a young, destitute Albanian immigrant in Belgium.
With plotlines involving sham marriages, murder and abduction, the film contains neither “Rosetta s freshness and edginess nor “L’enfant s powerful emotional payoff. Critics expected another masterpiece from two of the most creative directors today, and instead they had to settle for a simply good drama.
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, winner of the best direction award, changed pace with “Three Monkeys, a masterfully-photographed film that falls short of his two previous features “Distant and “Climates.
“Monkeys revolves around a wealthy businessman who convinces his driver to take the fall for a hit-and-run. Using landscapes as a psychological medium for exploring his breed of men, unwilling to face the ramifications of their actions, Ceylan scaled up his signature bare tone for a melodrama that doesn’t necessarily match his austere style or themes.
While Wenders and Egoyan returned to form after a number of misfires in past years with “Palermo Shooting and “Adoration respectively, their efforts were somehow slightly too formulaic to create a real sensation.
Apart from Eastwood, the highly contentious projects from American auteurs Steven Soderbergh and Charlie Kaufman sharply divided critics.
Soderbergh took the veil off his highly-anticipated biopic of Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara “Che starring Benicio del Toro, winner of the best actor prize. Spanning four-and-a-half hours, the Spanish-language epic is divided into two parts: “Guerilla, which focus on his participation in the Cuban revolution of 1957-59, and “The Argentine, which highlights his efforts to spread Latin American revolution in Bolivia from 1966 to 1967.
Gigantic in scope and vision, the film is essentially a document on how to create a successful insurgency. Soderbergh paints a romanticized picture of Guevara that avoids dwelling on his role in Castro’s Cuban government, the mass executions he organized, the persecution of homosexuals he oversaw, the downfall of the island’s economy for which he was responsible, and his ill-fated alliance with the Soviet Union.
The $60 million production has, according to experts, few commercial prospects, a reality confirmed by its failure to garner a distribution deal for a US release.
Kauffman didn’t fare better with his directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton. Oscar winner Kauffman – scribe of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and “Adaptation – shattered expectation with his most elusive and complex film to date.
Seymour Hoffman plays a jaded theater director who attempts to reconstruct his life after his wife and daughter desert him. Exploring and expanding on Kauffman’s themes of death, art creation, love, and aging, “New York is a difficult film, with many ambiguities and vague metaphors.
Like “Che, the film didn’t secure a US distribution deal.
Despite the mixed reaction that greeted most films inside the main competition, a number of films earned a unanimous seal of approval from Cannes’ critics.
Topping the list is Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir.
“Bashir, which was expected to walk away with the Palm d’Or, is Folman’s autobiographical memoir of 1982’s Sabra and Shatila’s massacre.
The former private mixes hand-drawn animations with documentary footage that places the blame on the Lebanese Christian militia as well as the Israeli administration and the prominent role former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon played in escalating the carnage.
Although the film was highly lauded by Arab and Egyptian critics, it’s unlikely to be screened in the Arab world.
French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin mesmerized the Cannes viewers with his follow-up to 2004’s award winner “Kings and Queen, “Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), starring Catherine Deneuve. The witty, profound family drama takes places on Christmas day as secrets and hidden sentiments of the members of an upper-middle class French family are unleashed.
Other standouts include: Matteo Garrone’s brutal chronicle of organized crime in Naples “Gomorrah, which won the grand prix prize; Jia Zhang-Ke’s “24 City, an audacious examination of the implications of modernity and capitalism on old factory workers essentially conceived through a series of long monologues; and Steve McQueen’s jury prize winner “Hunger, an unflinching account of the hunger strike brought about by imprisoned IRA militants in the 1980s.
The Arab factor
Arab cinema’s contribution to this year’s festival was almost non-existent.
Palestinian-American Annemarie Jacir’s “Le Sel de la Mer Mer (Salt of this Sea), screened at the Un Certain section, was the sole Arabic highlight of the festival. The well-received French production depicts the obstacles facing an American immigrant, returning back to Palestine, at Israeli checkpoints, and the Palestinian bureaucracy she encounters as she attempts to recover a sum of money left in a bank account by her grandparents.
Daniel Leconte’s controversial documentar
y “It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks was met with muted disdain from the few Muslim critics who managed to watch the acclaimed film. The film charts the legal battle by the editor of French weekly who was acquitted last year on charges of offending Muslims for reprinting the infamous cartoons. Leconte’s documentary didn’t evoke the expected livid reaction among Arab and Muslim communities in France.
With the declining value of the dollar and the overabundance of art films in a shrinking market, trade in Cannes this year has been slower than usual.
The market was held a few weeks after four of the most prominent American art house distributors – New Line, Tartan, Picture House and Think House – closed down following months of low ticket sales for their specialty films.
Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia Pictures picked few titles for American distribution, while IFC, cemented its reputation as the new Miramax after purchasing a slew of titles that range from “A Christmas Tale to Korean thriller “The Chase.
As usual, sales on the European front have been difficult, with the British and Italians leading the Euro charge. The ever-so-absent Arab distributors restricted acquisitions for film festivals; very few have purchased one or two titles for limited commercial release.